A Northern Shoveler in January

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers are medium-sized ducks that are usually only found in Ottawa during migration. Although the bulk of the population breeds across the western half of the continent, from Manitoba west to B.C. and into Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, a very small number have been confirmed breeding in southern and eastern Ontario. I usually only see them when they stop over on ponds such as the ones at the Richmond Lagoons and Sarsaparilla Trail, the Moodie Drive Quarry, and inside the dyke at Shirley’s Bay, both in the spring and in the fall. In the spring, Northern Shovelers typically pass through Ottawa during the month of April; I usually have more sightings in the fall, when they pass through from late August through late October. The latest I’ve seen this species in Ottawa is the first week of November. I have never known of one overwintering in our area, so when I heard there was one in Kanata about 5 minutes away from where I live, I decided to check it out the first chance I got.

The Northern Shoveler, a male, was associating with a large flock of mallards in a small creek that passes beneath Eagleson Road. I drove there first thing Saturday morning in order to look for him. The park through which the creek meanders is small, and finding the flock was easy – indeed, I have often seen the ducks here while driving along Eagleson Road. Although I saw lots of mallards and black ducks, the Northern Shoveler was not among them. There was a large group of black ducks in front of a large storm water drain, with what looked like small pieces of ice frozen to their feathers:

American Black Ducks

American Black Ducks with a few Mallards

I couldn’t see much of the creek from the vantage point above the storm water drain, and walked down to the bank to look up the creek. There was still no sign of the shoveler, though he might have been hidden in one of the bends in the shoreline.

Creek in Appaloosa Park

Creek in Appaloosa Park

Although I was disappointed, I decided to leave and check some other spots. I had a great view of a Snowy Owl south of Kanata (complete with an array of photographers gathered on the road beneath it), but didn’t find any of my other target species. I didn’t see any Snow Buntings or Horned Larks, there were no gulls at the Trail Road Landfill, and there were no Bohemian Waxwings along March Valley Road or around Shirley’s Bay. I looked for Northern Shrikes and Rough-legged Hawks further west and had no luck there, either.

I stopped at the park along Eagleson Road again before heading home, and this time I had some luck. I was looking down the creek again when I spotted a smaller duck huddled against the shore with its back to me. At first I thought it was a Hooded Merganser, as all I could see were the brown flanks and long black and white feathers covering the back. I very rarely see male Northern Shovelers in breeding plumage, especially up close, and realized I wasn’t certain what their back ends looked like. I decided to walk around to the other side of the creek, and that’s when the bird swam into the open. It was definitely a Northern Shoveler, though the long black and white feathers on his back looked similar to that of the male Hooded Merganser. You can see how much smaller he is than the mallards in this image:

Mallards with Northern Shoveler

Mallards with Northern Shoveler

The most noticeable thing about the Northern Shoveler is its bill. It is wider at the tip than it is at the base, and is about 6.5 cm (2.5 inches) long. The bill has has about 110 fine, comblike projections (called lamellae) along the edges, which strain food – mostly small swimming invertebrates, but also some plants and zooplankton – from the water. The Northern Shoveler swims through the water with its bill submerged, and moves its head from side to side. The water is drawn into the mouth at the front, and the shoveler then expels the water at the base of its bill using its tongue. The lamellae catch any food items and prevent them from being expelled along with the water. Because of this unique feeding method, Northern Shovelers do not feed by “tipping up” as often as other dabbling ducks do.

Northern Shoveler

The Northern Shoveler shows off his unique bill

I was thrilled because I had never been so close to one before – normally I see them on the far side of the Richmond Lagoons or way out in the middle of Shirley’s Bay. Some of the ducks seemed nervous with me there, so I made sure to stay back from the edge of the creek. Their nervousness seemed to decrease the longer that I stood in the same spot, and I was able to get my best ever photos of this species.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

He didn’t seem to interact with the other ducks. He fed for a bit, then swam to the far bank and sat on an underwater rock or log for a while.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

All the descriptions I’ve read about these ducks say that the male has a black rump. I had to look it up because in several images it looks as though its rump is green. This photo shows it best – click to enlarge.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

It was a thrilling bird for sure, and a great way to end an otherwise uneventful outing. It’s unusual birds like these, which usually winter much further south, that help keep winter interesting!

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2 thoughts on “A Northern Shoveler in January

  1. Thought you might like to know that I stopped by today to see the very handsome male Northern Shoveller in Appaloosa Park. He is still there, quite unconcerned by the bickering of the male mallards surrounding him.

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